At 36, Kimberly Fresquez was the youngest; the oldest, a man named Roger Williams, was 71.
According to a list compiled by a local church, no fewer than 22 people died homeless in Ventura in 2009, surpassing last year’s total, numbers that advocates for homeless abatement say are not only preventable, but tied to a lack of funding, resources and public support for eliminating a problem that has reached low points in the city and county.
The victims’ names will be read Sunday afternoon at a remembrance vigil for the deceased homeless, at Plaza Park in Downtown Ventura. The event becomes the second annual of its kind, following a vigil held last December, where it was noted that 20 people died without homes or necessary medical care in 2008.
It was dubbed as an inaugural event to acknowledge the fact that homelessness, its ailments and the lives it claims won’t be going away anytime soon in Ventura.
“When we look at these names and the causes of death, we’re seeing hopelessness,” says Jan Christian, pastor for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura, which is leading Sunday’s event.
According to Christian, at least one of the deceased homeless committed suicide. Other deaths, she said, were due to ramifications of mental illness, complications from drug and alcohol addictions, and the result of pulmonary problems.
“Most of these deaths, while some people would refer to them as natural, are not,” she said. “It’s not natural to be living on the streets, uncared for.”
However, while the Unitarian church’s list confirms that the nearly two dozen deceased were living on the streets of Ventura, the numbers greatly underestimate the true number of homeless people who pass away unaccounted for.
“What we know is the number is low,” Christian says. “Often the names we’re getting are names of people who were found on the street. They’re not people necessarily who’d been found, taken to the hospital, and died, or were taken in by a friend or relative. We know there are a lot more people who are homeless and dying of untreated illnesses because they live on the street.”
Much of the burden is left to the county’s public administrator’s office, which investigates the deaths of people who may die without a will or any known assets or relatives.
Jeanne Clark, a deputy with the public administrator, says her department receives about 200 referral calls a year for such cases. The office accepts about 50 percent of them, she says, and it’s likely the majority are homeless people.
“There are so many different ways to count the deaths if they’re homeless,” she said.
Yet because there’s often a lack of a tangible paper trail or any sort of documentation proving that someone who died held a residence, paid bills in his or her name, or left behind contact information for the next of kin, it’s often extremely difficult for authorities to compile a conclusive list verifying the exact number of those who were homeless that died.
Clark’s job is to head up such investigations.
“You never know what you’re going to find that could be a lead to something else,” she said. “That’s why I talk to anybody who may have known the person.”
One recent search led Clark to visit a local bank, where the deceased man in question, who was homeless, was said to hold an account.
“He spent most of his time at the park behind the bank,” Clark recalled. “His girlfriend died a month before him, and he came in to take out money for her burial.”
Upon further digging, Clark discovered the man also previously paid for the burial of his late girlfriend’s daughter, who had died of a drug overdose.
“These are three deaths all connected to each other,” said Clark, who confirmed that some of the people recorded on the church list died leaving behind verifiable family members.
Finding some kind of closure, no matter how minute, assigns a human face to a 620-plus-member homeless population that is ambiguous, and more often anonymous, to critics of the city’s troubling homeless problem. This year alone, residents and merchants based around Downtown Ventura have blasted city officials for several homeless prevention programs, among them a pilot program allowing people to sleep in their cars, and the conversion of a run-down Thompson Avenue motel into a transitional living center.
“So many people are invisible to the community. I don’t judge them,” Clark says. “That’s how they chose to live, and that’s how they lived. But after they die, they’re not invisible because they were connected to someone in some way.”
Neal Andrews, the Ventura City Council’s biggest champion of homeless prevention awareness, says he is unsure if the number of homeless deaths in 2009, or any year, could have been reduced.
“It’s really difficult to say. Clearly, we need more services for the homeless,” Andrews said. “The tragedy of people dying homeless on the street is something this community could avoid entirely. It’s simply a matter of asking people to do the right thing about it.”
Andrews added that exiting the cycle of homelessness, and the substance abuse issues that may go along with it, is not as easy as it seems.
“The homeless are hardly in a position to be strong advocates for themselves,” he said. “That leaves it to the rest of their compassionate neighbors to take up the cause.”
The Rev. Christian said she was shocked at the comparatively young ages of the people who will be memorialized on Sunday, and reflected that one’s health is severely compromised by living on the street, whether through drug addiction or exposure to the elements.
“It seems like if you’re in your 50s and not getting medical care, and you’re exposed to the elements, that’s when a lot of it catches up to you,” she said.
“Being on the streets and homeless for years on end cannot help but to wear down peoples’ resistance,” said Andrews.
Noting that, Sam Gallucci, pastor of the Harbor Community Church and the man organizing the proposed Kingdom
Center transitional facility, said he wasn’t fazed with the reported numbers.
“You have all those things working against you,” he said. “It saddens me greatly. It doesn’t surprise me.”
The memorial service honoring Ventura’s homeless will be held Sunday, Dec. 20, at 3 p.m., in the pagoda at Plaza Park, located on Santa Clara Street, between Fir and Chestnut streets, across from the Downtown Ventura post office. For questions, or to add to the list of names, call the Rev. Christian at 644-3898 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.